Moralism is an expression of self-righteous pride.
That’s where it always winds up. Always. But it doesn’t always start there.
Sometimes it starts in fear.
Think back to those archetypal moralists: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. Job’s three friends, it is often noted, are good friends to him right up until the point when they start talking. Then things go downhill pretty fast and they make themselves out to be such fools that thousands of years later their names are still synonymous with foolishness.
But put yourself in Bildad’s shoes and try to imagine this story from a Shuhite view.
Job is the best person you know. He hasn’t done anything wrong. Ever. And yet his life has suddenly and ferociously been reduced to misery. He has lost everything — his family, his wealth, his home, his health. All of it was swept away in a single calamitous day, just like that.
There you sit on the ashes, in the debris of what was once a happy, prosperous life, but where now nothing remains except pain, loss, rubble and suffering.
That would have to be terrifying.
Job seemed safe, but now you realize he wasn’t. And now you know — in terms too vivid to deny — that you are not safe either. Now you know that safety is never anything more than an illusion. Everything you know, everything you love, everything you rely on could be swept away capriciously and suddenly, without explanation and without recourse.
That’s intolerable. How can you carry on, knowing that?
In the best lines from Job’s friends we see them grappling with that. We see them trying to confront the terrifying contingency and fragility of the human condition. “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” Eliphaz says.
But it’s more than they can bear. They see it, but they quickly look away.
They need an explanation, and so they latch on to one. If only Job somehow deserved all of this pain and calamity. If he had done some evil thing for which this was some kind of just punishment, then safety might still be possible. If Job would only confess, admit to some sin, then we could know to avoid that sin and, thereby, to avoid his fate.If suffering is always earned and deserved, then suffering can always be avoided. We might still be safe.
And so — desperately, out of fear — Job’s friends retreat into moralism and the illusion of safety it promises them.
That, I think, is often one attraction of moralism: the false promise of safety from calamity and capricious suffering.
And that, I think, is part of why the magical, victim-blaming urban legend recently repeated by Rep. Todd Akin remains so popular throughout the religious right, throughout evangelicalism and American Catholicism, throughout the Republican Party and throughout America.
I don’t think it’s the only reason, or even the main reason, for this, but I think part of the reason that Akin and so many others cling to this weird, cruel, moralistic nonsense is that it offers the illusion of safety and protection from capricious violence and suffering.
How can one carry on if one knows that life-altering violence could strike, unbidden and undeserved, at any time for anyone? By imagining that the victims of such violence somehow deserve it, while we do not, meaning that we are safe.
That line of defense won’t entirely manage to keep the fear at bay, though. Doubts and facts will work their way over and around it, with counter-examples eroding its ability to shield us from fear. As much as we need to or want to, we won’t quite be able to sustain the idea that all such victims have somehow earned their suffering. We will know of, or hear of, or even simply imagine the hypothetical possibility of, some victims we are unwilling or unable to dismiss to such a fate. And thus we bolster the moralism of victim-blaming with the second part of Akin’s urban legend — the fantastical idea that in the rare case of a virtuous, undeserving victim, there will be some kind of magical, biological defense to protect them from the consequences of this calamity.
Sometimes moralism starts in fear. That fear is understandable and unavoidable. That fear is deeply, sympathetically human. The humans experiencing such fear, just like Bildad et. al., deserve a measure of our sympathy even while we must not hesitate to condemn the self-righteous pride and the epic foolishness of the moralism that such fear ultimately produces.